December 6 2012

New Task Force Tackles Inefficiencies in Kansas Schools

Vicki E. Alger

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback established a School Efficiency Task Force in late September. Currently only 15 of the state’s 286 school districts comply with a law requiring at least 65 percent of state funding go to classrooms or instruction. The statewide average is only 54 percent.

Additionally, since 2000 student enrolment has remained steady but K-12 funding, which represents more than half of the budget, increased nearly $1 billion.

“We need more money in the classroom and less in administration and overhead costs,” said Gov. Brownback in a September 28 statement.

The task force met for the first time on November 9, but this is not the first to attempt to improve school district efficiency.

Efficiency panels have been formed roughly every three to five years at least since the 1990s. The five-year Kansas 2010 Commission was created in 2005 during Gov. Kathleen Sebelius’ term in response to a lawsuit ordering the state to increase K-12 funding.

That commission published two efficiency reports in 2006 and 2007 covering all Kansas school districts. Since then the state’s legislative auditing agency has offered to conduct voluntary reviews, but just seven districts have requested one.

Gov. Brownback acknowledges that his latest task force is not the first, or last, attempt at greater school efficiency.

In early October the Kansas Association of School Boards formed its own efficiency committee. While publicly supportive of the goals of the Governor’s task force, the KASB believes it is too reliant on business analysts and CPAs.

That changed on October 18 when Gov. Brownback appointed Iola/USD 257 Superintendent Brian Pekarek to the task force. Pekarek was one of only seven district leaders to request a voluntary audit two years ago when he led the Clifton-Clyde Unified School District 224. It revealed the district could save more than $230,000 annually by fully utilizing partially filled classrooms and cutting low enrollment departments.

“Audits of school districts are very different than audits of businesses,” Pekarek cautions. “In business, money is used by businesses to garner more money… In education, money is…converted into the high achievement of students in the schools.” Thus efficiency is not an end but a means to better education. “However, efficiencies and school systems (like all systems everywhere) can be improved at times,” Pekarek noted.

Some experts think further improvements are needed now. Numerous districts in a single county enrolling less than 4,000 students have their own payroll, computer, busing, and food services, according to the Kansas Policy Institute.

Improving those non-instructional functions would mean more money for classroom instruction. “Efficiency is not simply about spending less money,” said KPI President Dave Trabert. “[I]t’s about providing the same or better service at a lower cost.”

Whether current efficiency efforts will succeed remains a matter of debate. Implementing recommendations is ultimately up to legislators. Still, “the people of Kansas deserve to have effective schools that operate as efficiently as possible,” said Ken Willard, chairman of the Governor’s Efficiency Task Force. “Efficiency does not necessarily mean lower cost.  It simply means that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and conscientiously, and that Kansas students graduate prepared for success in college or the career of their choice.”

The formation of the KASB efficiency committee also raises questions over how the goal of better education should be achieved. Willard said he expects a “positive working relationship” with their committee. “Their goals may not completely align with those of our task force,” he said, “but any divergence will be handled respectfully.” Others aren’t convinced.

“The Governor’s office is trying to find ways to provide outside-the-classroom functions at a lower cost,” explained Trabert. “KASB is focused on justifying and perpetuating the current system.” That system, he said, cost $12,656 per pupil last year. Yet only 56 percent of 11th graders are proficient in reading, and just 49 percent in math.

Yet prospects for change are better now than in years past, according to Trabert. The Governor’s task force consists mostly of outside experts, who can bring a fresh, disinterested perspective. Most important, “Parents are also becoming more aware of the fact that simply spending more money does nothing to improve student achievement,” said Trabert.

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